They gave him the pseudonym “Henry R.” to protect his identity. This is what he told them: The only thing left to do is go crazy – just sit and talk to the walls. A lot of people in here go on (suicide watch) … I catch myself (talking to the walls) every now and again.
It’s starting to become a habit because I have nothing else to do. Sometimes I go crazy and can’t even control my anger anymore …
“See, they say it’s to make you better but really it didn’t change me. It just gave me a worser (sic) attitude. I feel like I am alone, like no one cares about me. Sometimes I feel like, why am I even living.”
“Henry R.,” 16, an inmate at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center — the Miami-Dade County Jail — is a poster boy for what happens to the hundreds of children sometimes held in solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the United States.
Henry was among scores of children, some as young as 14, who told their stories to investigators from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The findings were announced in a recently released 147-page report, Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States.
The report is based on interviews and correspondence with the young inmates in 19 states who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18, as well as with jail and/or prison officials in 10 states.
Forty-nine of the 127 teen inmates interviewed said they spent between one and six months in solitary confinement before they turned 18. Eleven said they were confined to a total of one to seven days, 11 said between eight and 30 days, 49 said between 31 and 180 days, 21 said between 181 and 365 days and eight said more than 365 days.
“Locking kids in solitary confinement with little or no contact with other people is cruel, harmful and unnecessary,” Ian Kysel, Aryeh Neier Fellow with the ACLU and HRW and author of the report, said in a statement announcing the release of the document. “Normal human interaction is essential to the healthy development and rehabilitation of young people; to cut that off helps nobody.”
The researchers corresponded with and interviewed 38 people who were held in solitary confinement in some way while under 18 years of age in 18 Florida counties, including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. They reported that another 22 counties have reported such detention in the last six years, including Broward.
“Florida law and policy governing jails and prisons permit holding young people in various forms of prolonged isolation or segregation that can constitute solitary confinement,” the report states.
The HRW and the ACLU estimated that in 2011, more than 95,000 youths under age 18 were held in prisons and jails. They said “a significant number” of those facilities use solitary confinement lasting for days, weeks, months and even years, to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the young inmates.”
The researchers found that adolescents are being placed in solitary confinement for a wide range of reasons, from talking back to possessing contraband, to fighting, to protect them from adult inmates, as a means of managing their behavior and sometimes even as a way of medically treating them.
As of last January, 579 children under 18 were being held in Florida jails statewide, the report said. The Florida Department of Corrections reported 276 children under18 were in state prison, along with 1,640 youthful offenders, the youngest being 14, who was serving time for robbery with a gun or other deadly weapon.
The researchers said young people interviewed in Florida and elsewhere during the study repeatedly described how solitary confinement compounded the stress of being imprisoned.
They spoke about cutting themselves with staples or razors while in solitary, having hallucinations and losing touch with reality. Several said they had attempted suicide many times in solitary confinement.
Alyssa E., who spent four months in protective solitary confinement in Pinellas County when she was 16, said to the researchers, “It may sound weird but I had a friend in there that
I would talk to. She wasn’t there, but it was my mind. And I would talk to her and she would respond.… She (would tell) positive things to me. It was me, my mind, I knew, but it was telling me positive things.… It was a strange experience.”
Alyssa was among the girls who, the researchers added, used “self-harm as a way to call for help or get the attention of officials.”
She told them, “I cut myself. I started doing it because it is the only release of my pain.
I’d see the blood and I’d be happy.… I did it with staples, not razors. When I see the blood and it makes me want to keep going. I showed the officers and they didn’t do anything.… I wanted (the staff ) to talk to me. I wanted them to understand what was going on with me.”
The report calls for several steps to bring about more humane treatment behind bars.
“Young people can be guilty of horrible crimes with significant consequences for victims, their families and their communities. The state has a duty to ensure accountability for serious crimes and to protect the public,” the report said.